Vatican Opens German Material 1922-1939 in Secret Archives

Author: Fr Sergio Pagano, Prefect Secret Vatican Archives


Fr Sergio Pagano, B.,
Prefect of the Vatican Secret Archives

As an "exceptional" gesture and to help put an end to "unjust and disagreeablespeculations", the Holy Father has decided to open collections in the Vatican SecretArchiveson Germany, for the period 1922-1939. In an official statement, the VaticanPress Office also revealed that once all the archives of those years, correspondingto Pius XI's Pontificate, can be technically opened to researchers, the Pope willgive priority to the opening of Vatican-German documents of Pius XII's Pontificate(1939-1958). The statement says that the Holy Father has this further step "verymuch at heart", because "the Second World War broke out during Pius XII's Pontificate, bringing the deportation of the Jews and the tragedy of the Shoah". TheWorld Jewish Congress announced last August that it was withdrawing its supportfor a Commission of Jewish and Catholic historians created in 1999 to study PiusXII's role during the Second World War. Some Jewish historians insisted that thearchives be opened if they were to continue their task. In response, the Vaticansaid that all documents of historical interest of that period (1965-1982) had alreadybeen published, at the request of Paul VI, in 12 volumes entitled Actes et documents du Saint-Siège relatifs à la Seconde guerre mondiale. Here is a translation of the statement in Italian of the Vatican Press Office.

In 1984, by disposition of Pope John Paul II, the Vatican made available for consultation source material in the Vatican Archives up to 1922, the end of the Pontificate of Benedict XV. At the same time, the Archives began the reorganization of the documentation concerning the Pontificate of Pope Pius XI (1922-1939) using the criteria that have always been followed in organizing the material: the opening of archives for periods of time that corresponds to one or more Pontificates; allowing a suitable period of time to pass in order to protect individuals and institutions with proper discretion; the completion of the complete cataloguing of archival documents in order to assist those doing research, and to make for the safe treatment of the documentation.

The preparation of archival material concerning the Pontificate of Pope Pius XI is at an advanced stage; but it will take about three more years until it is completed. It cannot be carried out hastily by the team appointed to do the work, since the material itself requires the collaboration of expert archivists who have to deal with documents that frequently concern subjects that belong to the internal forum.

While waiting for the opening of all the archival sources of the Holy See concerning that Pontificate, the Holy Father John Paul II has decided to open to researchers, from the beginning of 2003, the documents in the archives of the Section of the Secretariate of State for Relations with States and of the Vatican Secret Archives concerning Germany for the period 1922-1939.

All the documents in this collection will be made available to historians: Archives of the Section for Extraordinary Ecclesiastical Affairs, Bavaria (1922-1939), about 10 envelopes; Germany (1922-1939), about 100 envelopes; Vatican Secret Archives: Archive of the Apostolic Nunciature in Munich (1922-1934), about 430 envelopes; Archives of the Apostolic Nunciature in Berlin (1922-1930), about 100 envelopes. As is well known, the Berlin Nunciature dossier was seriously tampered with and some of its contents destroyed in German territory during the Second World War, and many documents of the years 1931-1942 were lost and perhaps also destroyed, well before the diplomatic archive was sent to the Vatican. One will be able to consult these dossiers in the Vatican Secret Archives, according to the prescribed procedures for admitting researchers.

The Holy Father's decision intends to satisfy the many requests for access to Vatican documentation concerning such an obviously important Pontificate as that of Pius XI. This period is important because there were vast political upheavals in Europe that unfortunately led to the setting up of totalitarian states and despotic governments that were a prelude to the Second World War whose first threatening acts took place in the last years of the Pontificate of Pius XI.

Everyone realizes, of course, the exceptional nature of the Holy Father's gesture that calls for a partial repeal of the criteria we just mentioned to help put an end to unjust and disagreeable speculations.

One can say that, once the Vatican Archives for the Pontificate of Pius XI are fully opened, the Holy See will also give top priority to making accessible the Vatican-German documentary sources for the Pontificate of Pius XII (1939-1958). The Holy Father has very much at heart this further opening of the Vatican Archives because it was during the Pontificate of Pius XII, that the Second World War broke out, and with it came the deportation of the Jews and the tragedy of the Shoah.

The Holy See is aware that, while the eventual positive steps are taken with the goal of opening the Vatican Archives sooner and more extensively, the present steps could give rise to perplexity or to critical observations of a scientific kind.

Some might note, for example, that to limit the opening to only one series of documents (in this case the Vatican-German documents from 1922-1939) and not to open the entire collection of archival sources that come from the Pontificate of Pius XI, is in a certain sense an anomaly in the study of archives, since the "opening" of a collection of archival documents is usually simultaneous for all the sources of a specific period and not just for one period, or one or a few segments of a period. The historian who wants to research the letters of Vatican-German relations from 1922 to 1939, once they have been made accessible, will immediately feel the need to broaden his research by following up with other sources of the Holy See the connections and links that he finds exist with the different letters in the archives that are not yet available. This gives rise to an obvious and understandable problem.

To face this and other possible difficulties, that have their own scientific reasons, the Holy See draws attention to the exceptional character of the present provision.

We believe that despite the inevitable "disappointments" of researchers, who were perhaps expecting before long the complete opening of all Vatican sources up to 1939, the Holy Father's decision with regard to the Vatican-German documentation will be a sound premise for future study and research. We hope that in about three years time it will be possible to open all the collections in the Vatican Archives until 1939, and when the necessary cataloguing has taken place, even later.

* * *

Meanwhile it was decided to publish the data "concerning prisoners of the last war (1939-1945)" that exist in this collection in the Vatican Secret Archives.

Since the documents in this dossier are complete, homogenous and already catalogued, it is intended with their judicious publication—in the course of the years and in various volumes—to bring to the immediate attention of historians Pius XII's great acts of charity and assistance to prisoners and other war victims, regardless of their nation, religion or race.

The project will be sponsored by the Secretariate of State and published by the Vatican Secret Archives.

Fr Sergio Pagano, B.
of the Vatican Secret Archives

Fr Marcel Chappin, S.J.
Head of the Historical Archives
of the Secretariate of State
(Section for Relations with States)  

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
20 February 2002, page 8

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